Michael On Community Health And Participation

The last few weeks have involved a lot of conversations about what residents of Kensington & Chelsea want, and what their expectations are when it comes to participating in decisions that affect them, especially their health. It’s been really striking to hear those questions asked in a borough where life chances vary so much over very short distances, but particularly in a borough in which some parts of the population, and their health, have been the subject of so much surveillance in recent years.

The Volunteer Centre has an interest in these conversations for several reasons. First, because we know that people’s health can have a profound affect on their ability to care for others, and to participate in the community they live in. Poor health and life-limiting conditions are a major barrier for many people who want to volunteer, and we have long run programmes that work with residents to overcome those barriers and help them look after their health by being active, having fun, and connecting with the people and the environment around them.

Second, we know that participating in collective decision-making – whether that’s to protect a valued asset like a hospital, school, library or a beloved park, to build social housing, or to make sure the right health services are there when we need them – is something we are likely to do as volunteers. Here we have experience of supporting volunteering in order to make it accessible and inclusive of the whole community. It’s great to have the sense that we have agency, that we can make a difference in our lives and the places we live, but it’s profoundly disempowering to be unable to take those opportunities through lack of means, poor processes, or prejudice, whether intentional or otherwise.

Thirdly, through programmes like Community Champions, Volunteering on Prescription, Stepping Stones, Supported Access and Community Connections, the Volunteer Centre is lucky enough to work with many people with first-hand experience of navigating the local healthcare system, and many partner organisations we rely on for support and insight in navigating it ourselves. We take what we learn from people and organisations and we share it with colleagues in the NHS and the Council, to try to prevent people getting ill, intervene early to get them better sooner, and reduce the stark inequalities in the borough, in areas like life expectancy, where we can.

We are really pleased to be told that opportunities for local people to participate meaningfully in setting health priorities, design services, deliver work they believe in, and evaluate the impact, will increase. We love volunteering, but we know that in order to be able to volunteer consistently, most people need basic financial security, so more properly paid, secure jobs in health and care locally will help volunteering grow. We also believe that public bodies and public services are better when they include and reflect the people they serve. Half of the Volunteer Centre’s paid staff are local people – we believe this makes us, and other participative organisations, better at what we do.

Michael Ashe, CEO